Maastricht Debate kicks off the European Elections with von der Leyen as clear frontrunner

By Jose Arroyo | Brussels, European Union 

On 29 April, lead candidates for the European Elections gathered in in Maastricht to debate the future of the Green Deal, the EU’s security and defence policies, and European democracy. This first campaign event has set a markedly confrontational tone for the lead-up to the elections in June, with candidates trading barbs on the continuity of green policies, migration, and foreign interference. Incumbent Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emerged unscathed from the debate, and Greens candidate Bas Eickhout also put up a convincing performance. However, much of the campaign will depend on national issues and Ms von der Leyen’s future will not be known for sure until EU leaders and the new Parliament confirm their support for a second term.

Maastricht: first campaign stop

The debate, hosted by newspaper Politico and Studio Europa Maastricht, featured main European political parties’ candidates for the presidency of the European Commission. With the current European Parliament having held its final Plenary session the week prior, European politicians are now focussing on the campaign leading up to the election on 6-9 June. The vote will be a crucial moment in European politics, with 450 million citizens called to choose their representatives for the next five years. 

Eight candidates took to the stage in the Dutch university town. Mainstream representatives include the centre-right Ursula von der Leyen (European People’s Party); the socialist Nicolas Schmit (Party of European Socialist); the liberal Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe); and Bas Eickhout, a Dutch MEP and co-lead candidate of the European Green Party. 

Also present were Anders Vistisen, Danish MEP from the far-right Identity & Democracy Party; Walter Baier, an Austrian communist politician representing the European Left party. The debate also featured politicians from smaller parties such as the European Christian Political Movement and the European Free Alliance, a grouping of regionalist and separatist parties.  

Candidates covered three broad themes: climate change, defence and security, and European democracy. Given that von der Leyen was the only candidate on stage to have a real chance to lead the next Commission, the debate often felt like a seven-vs-one. She was, nonetheless, more successful than others at getting her message across to the largely student audience, as was the Green’s Eickhout.  

A Green Deal retrospective: how do we finance our future? 

On climate change, von der Leyen defended her record, highlighting the 2050 decarbonisation objective set by her Commission. She described the Green Deal as a question of competitiveness and emphasised her willingness to work with the private sector to mobilise more funds. For his part, the socialist Schmit avoided direct criticism and called for more investments to implement the Green Deal.  

Eickhout, on the other hand, accused von der Leyen of scapegoating green policies and using farmers’ protests as an excuse; he asked for a European investment fund to implement the Green Deal, in particular in transport and housing. The liberal Strack-Zimmermann proposed making reporting simpler for farmers but struggled to deliver a clear message. For his part, Vistisen slammed the Green Deal, accusing it of making Europeans poorer and moving jobs to China. He asked for market-ready solutions for the green transition instead of state-aid based models. 

Defence & security: broad agreement on defence integration, division on migration 

Candidates largely focused on the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East as well as migration. The sitting Commission President called for continued support for Ukraine and presented her vision for an integrated defence single market while respecting national competences on military issues. She also traded barbs with the hard-left Baier on Ukraine and Israel, with the latter forcing von der Leyen to say that an invasion of the Gazan city of Rafah by Israel would be unacceptable. She nonetheless remained non-committal on sanctions. The socialist and liberal candidates both spoke in favour of an integrated defence policy to avoid dependence on the USA. The far-right Vistisen attacked the EU for attempting a “power grab”, claiming the EU was trying to take away Member States’ and NATO’s powers on defence. 

On migration, von der Leyen defended the recently-approved Migration Pact and said it will be Europeans – not smugglers – who will decide who enters the EU. In contrast, the Green’s Eickhout slammed the pact for lowering the standards on migrants’ rights. The far-right Vistisen called for a tough “Australian model” on migration to the EU. Finally, in addition to criticising the EU for not sanctioning Israel, the hard-left Baier called for a negotiated peace in Ukraine, which drew criticism from other candidates as they claimed this would amount to a Ukrainian surrender. 

Democracy: foreign interference and shifting alliances in the spotlight 

During a tense exchange, nearly all candidates on-stage accused the Identity & Democracy group of being infiltrated by Russian and Chinese spies, with many highlighting the recent arrest of a parliamentary assistant working for German MEP Maximilian Krah on suspicion that he was spying on China’s behalf. In lieu of a retort, the ID speaker Vistisen attacked his counterparts’ record, in particular the socialists for being involved in the Qatargate influence-peddling scandal.  

Separately, in the clearest indication of what is now an open secret, Ms von der Leyen refused to commit to not cooperating with ECR, the hard-right European party home to Poland’s Law & Justice party and Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which notably refused to field a representative at the debate. The latest polls showing good results for ECR and the Commission President’s positive working relationship with PM Meloni seemed to have led her to leave her options open. 

Preview for 27 national campaigns? 

The debate in Maastricht provided a preview of what the EU election campaign will look like, with the Green Deal, security, and democracy being prominent themes across all Member States. Candidates revealed the fault lines that divide Europeans, and this will likely be reflected across Member States in June. However, it’s worth noting that for most European voters, the electoral campaign will be eminently national, with domestic politics and debates having a strong impact on the results.  

While polls seem to indicate a shift to the right, the campaign has only just started. Ms von der Leyen still appears to be the frontrunner and she managed to avoid making any major mistakes in the debate. But her re-election will only be confirmed if European leaders renominate her after June 9, and if she gathers sufficient support in the newly composed European Parliament.